Immune competent cattle

We have shown that selection of 'immune competent' cattle can reduce the incidence of disease in Australian beef cattle, particularly in feedlots. It can improve animal welfare outcomes and reduce the use of antibiotics and chemicals in our food production systems.

The challenge

The economic and welfare costs of cattle disease in Australian feedlots

Infectious disease costs the Australian red meat sector around $2 billion per year, causing significant animal welfare issues.

Cattle who enter feedlots are exposed to a range of diseases for the first time and bovine respiratory disease, which costs the industry an estimated $40 million annually, is the most common disease cattle encounter in Australian feedlots. It’s a complex disease which can be caused by a multitude of agents so pinning down the causes and effectively protecting all animals in a feedlot through vaccination can be difficult to achieve.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the health and welfare of the animals that produce our food and increasingly concerned with the use of antibiotics to prevent and treat disease in food-producing animals. Maintaining consumer confidence is critical to the future of the beef industry.

Our response

More genetics, less antibiotics

Natural variation exists in the ability of cattle to resist disease. Using our immune competence test we can identify the bulls that have a stronger immune response and then select these to breed progeny with elite genetics that provides an enhanced natural ability to resist disease. This ‘immune competence’ is a measure of the strength of an animal’s overall immune system and resilience, reflecting its ability to cope with disease challenges and bounce back from those challenges quickly.

We have shown that genetic selection of immune competent cattle can reduce the incidence of disease in Australian beef cattle, particularly in feedlots. It can not only improve the animal welfare outcomes, but reduce health costs and increase production. It also reduces the use of antibiotics and chemicals in livestock production and improves profitability for producers and feedlot operators.

The results

Immune competence as a genetic selection trait

Along with our partners, Angus Australia and Meat & Livestock Australia, we measured the immune competence of progeny with known performance from the Australian Angus Sire Benchmarking Program throughout their time in feedlots. We found that the health-related costs for the low immune competent animals were around $105 per head. The highest immune competent animals stayed healthier, had a lower mortality rate due to disease and cost only $5 per head in comparison.

In this study, low immune competent animals represented only 12 percent of all animals entering the feedlot but accounted for 35 per cent of the estimated health associated costs.

We’ve now identified the estimated breeding value (EBV) for Angus cattle, named ImmuneDEX, so farmers can add immune competence into the mix of genetic traits when selecting new sires into the future. This is a world first and ensures that Australian beef producers have the tools at hand to improve the health of their herds.

In addition, it can improve feedlot productivity and help maintain high standards of health and welfare of the animals in feedlots.

It’s also a bonus for consumers – healthier cattle is a great animal welfare outcome and it reduces the use of antibiotics and chemicals in our food production systems.

Brad Hine